Youth marketing
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Everything brands need to know about back to school marketing

A group of people sitting at a table with a laptop
Written by
Izzy Hall
Published on
June 24, 2024
Last updated
July 9, 2024

What this article covers

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Summer’s barely begun, and yet here we are talking about back to school. We know. It’s tiresome. 

And yet, every year, students think of new ways to surprise us. New likes and dislikes, new social media platforms, new preferences. 

And for marketers, that means revisiting back to school marketing campaigns. It means finding new ways to target students during freshers and more research to better understand your target audience. 

Today, we’re here to help. 

This year, 64% of Gen Zers in the US and 54% in the UK plan to purchase ahead of the new academic year. That’s a huge number of potential customers to target.

In this blog, we’ll provide you with everything you need to know about the back to school season. We’ll discuss why this is such an important time for marketers, dissect student spending habits (revising last year and predicting this year), and share our freshers marketing tips for engaging students ahead of this all-important time. Naturally, there’ll be some case studies along the way too.

So, what are you waiting for? Let’s head back to school…

What is the back to school period?

The back to school period doesn’t just cover the couple of weeks leading up to students’ return to (or start of) college: 33% of students in 2023 made their pre-college purchases in the two months before their return to college. 

Brands should be targeting students the second the previous academic year ends in order to get your brand and products front of mind. There’s no time to lose!

Why is the back to school period important for marketers?

Excitement will be high, which means spending will be high. 

During the back to school season, thousands of young people will be actively seeking new products, experiences, and services to help them through this new phase of life, and that’s where you come in. 

In fact, 2023’s back to college season saw a huge $95B of spending take place, whilst the average spend per household on back to college supplies was $1.4k. 

The back to school season is a time that decides students’ preferences and consumption habits, often shaping their spending behaviors and brand loyalty well into the future. 

For marketers, the period offers invaluable opportunities to get your brand front of mind. 

But, it’s not that easy. Competition is fierce and money is tight. Marketing strategies need to stand out against some pretty powerful competition. 

How does Gen Z feel about going back to school in 2024?

The back to school season is a hugely important time for young people. It’s a time for making new friends, returning to the structure of academic life, and celebrating newfound freedom as many move away from home for the first time. 

But, much like putting their first wash on, they can’t do it alone. Students will be turning to brands for support, new products, and exciting experiences to help them make the most of their time at university. 

Student spending habits

Where did students spend their cash during the 2023 back to school season? 

Before we look forward, let’s cast our minds back. Back to the freshers season of 2023. A time when the world was gripped by Barbenheimer, Twitter became X, and Kylie and Timmy C got steamy at the U.S. Open. 

But whilst these shenanigans were going on, what were students spending their money on ahead of their return to college*? 

Categories with the highest average order value in the US: 

  • Flights ($828.81) 
  • Computers ($481.65)
  • Tech and mobile ($260.06)
  • Hotels and hostels ($217.13) 

Categories with the highest average order value in the UK:

  • Holidays (£2,815.50)
  • Computers (£678.73) 
  • Video games (£675.20) 
  • Tech and mobile (£335.61) 

* Data gathered from users of Pion’s student discount platform, Student Beans 

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Looking forward: What will students be spending their money on this year?

So, what have we learned from last year? And will this year look the same?

We asked our Gen Z survey respondents: Which of the following categories do you plan to buy from to get ready for the start of a new academic year? 

  • Stationary and study essentials (61% UK, 66% US)
  • Food and nutrition (52% UK, 62% US) 
  • Household essentials (47% UK, 48% US)
  • Cleaning products (43% UK, 44% US)
  • Tech (35% UK, 38% US)
  • Health and wellness (35% UK, 51% US) 
  • Beauty and skincare (34% UK, 38% US) 
  • Household accessories (32% UK, 35% US)
  • Fashion (30% UK, 42% US) 
  • Hobby-related (23% UK, 25% US) 

When thinking about preparing for the new academic year, how much do you expect to spend on the following? 

Our data revealed one of most popular sectors in the UK to be technology, with 51% of students expecting to pay over £200 ahead of their return to university. This was followed by fashion, on which 16% expect to spend over £200.

Meanwhile, in the US, the scene is pretty much the same: 57% expect to spend over $200 on tech, 16% plan to spend over $200 on household essentials, and 16% will spend over $200 on fashion.

How will students be financing the back to school season this year?

So, we know students will be stocking up ahead of their arrival on campus, but with high inflation gripping the UK and US, how exactly are they planning on financing this? 

Pion data revealed that the majority of young people will be using their income from employment, as well as diving into their savings. 

  • 56% of Gen Zers in the UK and 67% in the US plan to use income from employment 
  • 55% from the UK and 51% from the US plan on using savings
  • 42% from the UK and 17% from the US plan to use student loan 
  • 14% from the UK and 19% plan to use Buy Now Pay Later schemes. You can read more about Gen Z’s attitude to BNPL schemes in this year’s Youth Trends Report

How to engage students this back to school season 

In this section, we look at leading student marketing trends you need to be aware of and share our top tips on how to run a successful campaign. 

2024 back to school trends 

Freshers fairs 

You may have heard rumors that freshers fairs, or welcome weeks, are on the decline. That students no longer want to meet IRL and would rather start their university experience online. 

Well, spoiler alert: those rumors are false. 

Freshers fairs are famously popular places to meet other students and sign up for activities, making them to perfect place for brands to get in front of students and interact with their target audience. 

And whilst young people do love the online world, they’ve still got a soft spot for real-life activities too. They know that nothing quite beats meeting a brand or new friends online, making freshers events an important event for brands to be a part of. 

Where else are students meant to get their hands on free food, anyway?! 

You can learn more about the power of the IRL world and how to supercharge your back to school freshers efforts in our webinar Connect with Students Where It Matters Most, when Pion partnered up with experiential marketing agency, GottaBe!. 

Routine is key

After a summer of fun, many students look forward to returning to the rhythm of campus life, structure, and security. 

We know - if we had two months off, we wouldn’t be complaining, either. 

With this in mind, don’t be afraid to start your back to school campaigns as soon as possible: students won’t hate you for it! In fact, they’ll appreciate the structure for future them. 

Tech continues to dominate 

Is this really a surprise? 

From online learning to social media scrolling, having the latest tech is more important than ever before for students: it's a sector where discounts will be most appreciated. 

Case study: Pion x Papier 

Already one of the leading stationery brands in the UK, Papier wanted to raise the bar during the back to school season. 

As part of their annual plan with Pion, they ran a full funnel package to promote the brand during the freshers spending period. 

And the results speak for themselves: 

  • 18% YoY increase in revenue 
  • 72% increase in revenue during the 60 days of freshers compared to the 60 days before

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Back to school marketing ideas: How to run a successful campaign 

1. Discounts 

Money is tight and students are desperate. Students will be cutting down on spending due to high inflation and the rising cost-of-living, so discounts are vital if you still want to capture their spend. 

We can help with that. 

But, activating a student discount isn’t enough: it needs to be in prime place on your brand’s homepage, as well as promoted via socials and emails. Guess what - we can help with that too.

2. Let Gen Z plan their spending 

With competition high and money in the bank low, young people want to be able to plan out their spending in order to make savvy decisions. 

By giving them plenty of notice regarding what’s going to be discounted and when, you’ll not only stand out, but you’ll earn their trust and spending, too. 

3. Extra incentives 

Student discounts, free gifts, free delivery, virtual wheel spins… you name it, Gen Z wants it!

We asked our survey respondents: What types of offers make you more likely to spend with a brand during the back to school period? 

  • Student discounts (93%, 91% US) 
  • Free delivery (64% UK, 69% US) 
  • Discounts across the entire website/store (60% UK, 72% US) 
  • Free gift with purchase (57% UK, 55% US) 
  • Stackable discounts (53% UK, 76% US) 
  • Spin-to-win offers (37% UK, 22% US) 
  • Extra loyalty points (30% UK, 32% US) 
  • Exclusive deals to subscribers/loyalty club members (29% UK, 28% US) 

4. Consider what you’re discounting 

With young shoppers cutting back on their spending, they’ll also be limiting the sectors they’re willing to spend money on, too. 

Prioritize those back to school essentials that you know will go down well: study essentials, food, homeware, and tech. 

5. Create bespoke pages with deals 

We’ve established that students love a bargain, but making your bargain stand out is a whole new ball game. 

Creating shopping hubs or bundling popular, must-have items together is the trick to grabbing their attention. That way, they can secure the item they know they want, whilst also discovering the item they didn’t know they wanted…

Key takeaways

  • The back to school season is a time that decides students’ preferences and consumption habits, often shaping their spending behaviors and brand loyalty well into the future.
  • From online learning to social media scrolling, having the latest tech is more important than ever before for students: it's a sector where discounts will be most appreciated. 
  • Money is tight and students are desperate. Students will be cutting down on spending due to high inflation and the rising cost-of-living, so discounts are vital if you still want to capture their spend. 

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We are Pion: your ticket to next-level growth 

At Pion, we help brands harness the growth-driving power of 
 consumer groups with full-funnel insights, advertising and verification. Our ecosystem of solutions helps expand your brand’s customer base 
 and supercharge sales.

Since 2005, we’ve uniquely built our expertise to help brands better understand, engage and grow loyalty with students, Gen Z, and other strategic consumer groups. From initial insight through to targeted promotion, our solutions drive growth on the right platforms, in the 
 right ways - all to take your business to new heights.

Understand, engage and grow with a single partner. You’re in good company. We’re trusted by over 1,000 brands in more than 100 countries. 

Want to know more? Get in touch with the Pion team today to discuss your student marketing goals and find the solution to fit your brand. 

Data sources: Statista: Back-to-college stats and facts, Pion student survey, 2023, Student Beans user data: US spend between July - October 2023, Pion Youth Trends Report 2024, Pion pulse survey

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Want to know more about Freshers?

Download 'Freshers 2024: Spending, trends, and top tips'

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